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How does the Civil War feature in Little Women and why isn't it prominent?

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The Civil War is present in Alcott's Little Women, but it is a marginal part of the story. At the beginning of the novel, as Mr. March is away serving as a chaplain in the war, but he later returns and does not spend much time talking about the war. When he is away, Mrs. March and her daughters read his heartwarming letters from the front. Most of the action, however, occurs far from the war and concerns the domestic travails of the four March sisters.

There are many theories about why Louisa May Alcott relegated the war to a minor place in the novel. She herself had served as a nurse during the war and had suffered from typhoid, which was treated with mercury. Her treatment would cause years of ailments. Her book, however, was a paean to the sweet domestic novel of the time, and, hoping to sell enough copies to put herself and her family on secure financial footing, Louisa May Alcott did not make the war central to the action of the book. She was hoping to write a book that was endearingly domestic and in which the power of the home could overcome most obstacles (save Beth's illness and death). She therefore made the war occupy only a minor role in the novel—one that only emphasizes the comforts of home, far from the front.


Fetterley, Judith. "'Little Women': Alcott's Civil War.' Feminist Studies Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1979), pp. 369-383. Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc. DOI: 10.2307/3177602.

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The Civil War is primarily present through Mr. March, the girls' father, who is serving away from home as an army chaplain. The war becomes a subject of conversation in chapter one when Mrs. March comes home carrying a letter from Mr. March to the family. From the start, the girls' reactions to the war help to characterize them: Jo, for example, wishes she could go to the front as a drummer or nurse, while Amy dislikes the idea of the rough army life.

The letter introduces a parallel between Mr. March's struggles in the war and the girls' struggles at home, which are posited as in a "battle" against their internal "enemies" or vices. Mr. March trusts that they

will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.

The war, however, happens entirely "off stage." It is background. Alcott has conveniently gotten Mr. March out of the picture so that the reader can witness Marmee, and especially the girls, fight their own battles and live women-centered domestic lives. With the father away at war, his home becomes their home, their adventures their own: they are the ones in charge.

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In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, we never really see the Civil War. It hovers in the background; it affects the lives of Marmee and the girls; they each do something for the war effort. Mr. March is away at the front, and the war comes to the girls filtered through their father's almost certainly carefully worded letters home.  It provides a subtext and a reason for some of the decisions the girls make, but it never seems to intrude upon their fairly sheltered lives.

It is possible that Alcott treated the war this way because her intent was not to write a war novel but a novel about a family of young women on their own without a father figure. A father away at the war can be missed and thought of fondly, but he is also the authority figure who is out of the way, and the girls are given the opportunity to spread their wings and decide things for themselves, helping them to grow up into the "women" of the title.

In fact, the closes the war gets to them is when Mr. March returns home. By then, they have grown independent and strong. This is not to say that they might not have anyway - only that they had more independence than they would have if he had been home.

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